Guest Opinion: Constitution must guarantee right to vote

Published August 12th 2008 in Billings Gazette
This election season we need to ensure the right to vote.

Instead of one rule book, we have closer to 13,000 separate sets of rules and regulations across the country about who can vote and how they do so. The voting process is different state to state and county to county.

This year, turnout may be high, and millions of Americans will go to the polls believing that their legal right to vote is protected. But they may be cruelly surprised.

In the notorious Bush v. Gore case, the Supreme Court insisted that Americans have "no federal constitutional right to vote." In other words, the court said that we, the people, have only the voting privileges our states choose to grant us.

Yes, our Constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination in granting the franchise based on a person's race, sex, or (adult) age in the 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments, but those protections are incomplete. States and other governments can and do disenfranchise individuals and groups of citizens.

For instance, photo identification requirements in Indiana kept 12 nuns in their 80s and 90s without driver's licenses from voting in the primary there this May. In New York City, in 2004, Asian-American voters were routinely asked for identification when trying to vote - even though city laws didn't require voters to have an ID. In Florida, in 2004, election officials rejected thousands of voter registration applications because potential voters failed to check a box on the application that duplicated information that had already been asked.

This patchwork undermines the very vitality and security of our democracy.

We must be clear about the implications of living in a nation where federal law doesn't guarantee the right to vote to anyone: Millions of eligible voters who cast ballots may not get their vote counted because of unnecessary rules that impede the voting process in state after state.

It is time to do away with this patchwork of bizarre and erratic rules and regulations. We need to put the right to vote in the Constitution and establish national standards.

The right to vote must become a right guaranteed to all American citizens and not a privilege controlled by a few. It is time for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution.

Penda D. Hair is co-director of Advancement Project, a civil-rights organization (